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Charles Dickens on stage – Mark Shenton’s top 5

Rhys Ifans in A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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What the Dickens and Bah Humbug! It’s that time of year that is as synonymous with the stage version of A Christmas Carol as it is with mince pies, carol concerts and retail sales.

Dickens was, as Sophie Nield put it in a 2012 Guardian blog, “first and foremost, a man of the theatre, who loved all the life and vitality of London’s theatre scene, both on stage and off…. He was an avid theatregoer, joined the Garrick Club at the age of 25 and had many theatrical friends, including the actor William Macready, to whom he dedicated Nicholas Nickleby. He visited circuses and melodrama houses; his periodical writings covered vents and “grimacers”, waxworks, freak shows, actors, gaslight fairies and clowns.”

He would, one imagines, be delighted to see himself so well represented on stage. Here are my favourites:

1. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

Emily Richard and Roger Rees and the cast of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980. Photo: Reg Wilson
Susan Littler and Roger Rees in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980. Photo: Reg Wilson

The gold standard of straight (ie, non-musical) theatrical adaptations of Dickens’ work remains the version of Nicholas Nickleby created by playwright David Edgar for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which premiered at the Aldwych Theatre (then the company’s London base) in 1980. It’s a show that led the same creative team, via Cats, to Les Miserables, so its influence has continued to reverberate. This Christmas, Edgar returns to the RSC to adapt A Christmas Carol for the stage.

2. Oliver Twist

Lionel Bart’s 1960 West End musical Oliver! remains one of the most tuneful British musicals ever written: if the dramaturgy looks a little bit clunky these days, there’s always a glorious tune on its way to lift the spirits. There have been countless West End returns, including a Sam Mendes-directed revival at the London Palladium in 1994 that was subsequently restaged by Rupert Goold at Drury Lane in 2009 (in which Jodie Prenger appeared as Nancy, having won the BBC reality contest I’d Do Anything).

3. A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol review at Old Vic, London – ‘incredibly atmospheric’

I’ve not seen it yet, but the new Jack Thorne version of A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic sounds pretty special. As Michael Billington said in his review for the Guardian: “Two months after Dickens’ story first appeared at Christmas in 1843 there were eight rival versions on the London stage. It has been endlessly adapted ever since, but Jack Thorne’s new version, starring Rhys Ifans as Scrooge, stands high on my list of favourites.”

And it may well be that there are more than eight rival versions of the story on UK stages this Christmas. The Leslie Bricusse musical Scrooge is already playing at Leicester’s Curve; David Edgar’s new version for the RSC is currently in previews at Stratford, before opening next Wednesday (December 6); and the London Musical Theatre Orchestra is bringing a concert version of Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent’s musical adaptation to the Lyceum on December 11 and 18 with a cast led by Robert Lindsay as Ebenezer Scrooge and also featuring Michael Xavier as Bob Cratchit and Glenn Carter as Marley. I’m sure there are others I’m unaware of.

Clipping from the Stage in 1965

4. The Pickwick Papers

Dickens’ first novel was adapted as a stage musical that premiered in the West End in 1963 with Harry Secombe in the title role. The score, by Cyril Ornadel (music) and Leslie Bricusse (lyrics) includes If I Ruled the World, which became the “signature tune” for Secombe and has been endlessly covered since by others that include Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Jr.

5. A Tale of Two Cities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” goes the most famous line in A Tale of Two Cities. It has had suitably mixed fortunes in theatre as well.

On the one hand, there was Mike Poulton’s version for Northampton Royal in 2014, which Kate Kellaway in the Observer acclaimed as a “splendid production”, with Poulton‘s adaptation described as “brilliant – his sense of direction (the risk of being diverted by Dickens always great) ensures no one unacquainted with the novel will be baffled.”

On the other, there was a production at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre this summer, about which Susannah Clapp memorably wrote this in the Observer: “Every couple of years someone writes a column saying how she has been to the theatre after long abstinence, had a bad time and decided she will never go again. Every now and then I see what she means. When the theatre is really bad it is intolerable. It is as if it has an auto-immune disease: the very qualities that can make stage work invigorating – liveness, boldness, faith in words, an open heart – turn against it and look like blunders. The best of theatremakers can produce the worst of shows. A Tale of Two Cities is a toolkit for stage-haters.”

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